The almost never-ending blood tests, the continual rotation of intravenous bags, the antiseptic hospital smell all seemed familiar.
Rhea Roller Watson remembers the hours spent in the oncology ward at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. She received regular chemotherapy treatments for leukemia, suffering through the fear, then fatigue, nausea and hair loss, for more than two years.
But she also holds on to the way the nursing staff at Riley was with her every step of the way, doing anything to cheer her up and holding her hand when she felt bad.
“They were always excited to see me. They were sad when I was sad, sad when I was sick. They shared in my emotion,” Watson said.
That experience will forever color her career moving forward. Watson will return to Riley Hospital, this time to work as a hematology and oncology night nurse in the cancer ward.
The Center Grove High School graduate was inspired by the nurses who helped her during treatment.
“I want to be the best nurse I can be for these patients, because I know how terrible of a time their life is at this point,” she said. “I wanted to be the nurse that a kid remembers because I helped them when they were hurting the most.”
Watson, 24, lives with her husband, Zach, in Bargersville. Both are Center Grove graduates and were married last year.
Their roommate is, Nala, a hyperactive, smallish German shepherd mix that was a gift from her parents while she was going through chemotherapy.
“She had been through everything. Even though she’s small, she’ll try to protect me from everything,” she said.
Cancer doesn’t define who Watson is. Her hair has grown back, now reaching almost to her mid-back. The sickness and fatigue of chemotherapy are long past.
But the treatment changed her. Watson puts more emphasis on family now, maturing more quickly than many teenagers and young adults do. She doesn’t get anxious about the everyday occurrences in life anymore; having cancer will emphatically underscore how pointless that can be.
“I honestly have very little control over what happens to me. In the end, life happens,” she said. “You pick up and move on.”
That lesson cruelly became clear during what should have been one of the best month’s of Watson’s life.
Throughout her senior year at Center Grove, she had suffered an increased number of colds and small illnesses. None of them incapacitated her, but for a standout softball player and athlete, it seemed strange that she was always sick.
During her senior prom, she had only enough energy to dance for two songs.
“I was so tired. Being a softball player, I was so confused. I should have the stamina to dance for more than two songs at prom,” she said.
Two weeks later, Watson suffered a nosebleed that would not stop. The situation was bad enough that her parents took her to the emergency room, where she was given nasal spray.
Tests confirm cancer
Another nosebleed four days later, this time while at school, again landed her in the emergency room. When doctors couldn’t get the bleeding to stop, they did a battery of blood tests.
Watson was admitted to the hospital, where she was given two pints of blood and another pint of platelets to replace the blood she had lost. On May 15, 2009, doctors confirmed that she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“I don’t think I realized how serious it was. Maybe I just didn’t know,” Watson said. “I had heard the word cancer and didn’t really know what it was. It didn’t hit me until July what was happening.”
The disease affects the bone marrow’s ability to produce healthy white blood cells, which fight disease. If left untreated, it can quickly spiral out of control.
Though she started treatment at Indiana University Simon Cancer Center, since she had already turned 18, the doctors at Riley felt that she’d be more comfortable and better treated among younger patients.
Watson transferred to Riley two months later.
“They said I could do what I wanted, but I was more like a kid than an adult,” she said.
Watson never needed to stay at Riley for long periods. Her treatment plan called for chemotherapy every week for the first eight months, so she came into the hospital, spent three or four hours and then left.
‘Feel incredibly lucky’
But over the course of 2½ years, she was in the hospital for a considerable amount of her life. After the initial eight months, she received chemotherapy every three weeks.
“The first eight months was really bad, and then when you go to every three weeks, it doesn’t seem so bad,” she said. “After eight months of feeling so terrible, you kind of forget what feeling good is.”
By July 2009, Watson was in remission. But since cancer cells could still be in the body undetected, the most effective course was 24 months of cancer-killing drugs.
The chemotherapy caused complications that stretched out the schedule, as well. Watson’s liver started failing at one point, forcing doctors to stop. Small illnesses or colds also would delay when she could get treatment.
She received more than 20 spinal taps and lumbar punctures to check if leukemia cells were showing up in her spinal fluid.
“It was bad, but I just feel incredibly lucky I didn’t have any of those complications,” she said.
The nurses in the oncology unit helped make an unbearable situation a little more pleasant. They gave her small gifts and told jokes to get her to laugh.
Since Watson was the oldest patient in the oncology unit, she was scheduled to go last whenever she needed a spinal tap. Prior to the procedure, she couldn’t eat anything, meaning that by 2 p.m. when the tap was completed, she was famished.
‘Always there for me’
One nurse would bring her favorite cookies for her to dig into once the procedure was done.
“It’s little things like that, paying attention, that sticks in your mind,” she said. “They were always there for me.”
Despite her history, Watson’s path into nursing didn’t start right away. While she was going through chemotherapy, she took online courses with a focus on business management.
One year in, she realized that nursing was where she needed to be.
“I knew I had a passion for something finally. Business was just something easy for me. I didn’t have a reason to be in it,” she said.
While attending Indiana University’s school of nursing, she was introduced and assigned to a wide array of nursing options. None felt as right as when she came to Riley during her management clinical for four weeks.
It was the only option that she looked forward to, she said.
“I came into nursing for this job, basically,” she said.
‘It felt like family’
Nurses in the oncology unit remember Watson from her time at Riley. When Watson went into the unit before her wedding, she introduced people to Zach Watson and showed off her wedding dress to some of the same people who hooked her up to chemotherapy drugs.
“It felt like family. She wasn’t an active patient for years, but they were actively happy to meet her fiance and wanted to see how she was,” Zach Watson said.
During her interview for the job, they came up to say hello and recall the times they helped Watson get better.
“It’s going to be the best for the patients she cares for in the future. Not that she wouldn’t have done a great job wherever she was working, but she’s going to bring 100 percent passion to it every day,” Zach Watson said.
Watson will start in late June, after passing and completing her final tests. Watson still sees Dr. Terry Vik, her oncologist, every six months to ensure no cancer has come back.
But she’s confident that her cancer is behind her. Now, her focus will be squarely on the kids who are in the midst of the nightmarish disease.
“I feel so blessed to be able to give back what I got from there,” she said. “They were so encouraging and understanding, and I hope to be that for my own patients.”
Who: Rhea Roller Watson
Family: Husband, Zach
Education: Center Grove High School (2009); Indiana University School of Nursing (2015)
Occupation: Hematology and oncology nurse at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health